It’s been 50 years since Brian Wilson unleashed Pet Sounds on the public. And it’s still causing waves today as to its merits. Just recently “comic” (and I use the term loosely) Jay Mohr tweeted, “Let’s all stop pretending ‘Pet Sounds’ by the Beach Boys is anything other than goat vomit terrible.”
Yes, there are still some out there who don’t appreciate what Brian Wilson did. (There are even people who don’t like the Beatles.) After several years of making surf music (“Surfin’, “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ USA”) and cars (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409”), Brian aimed to do something different – very different. He employed classical musicians. He wrote out parts on music staff ledger. He rehearsed over and over until the session musicians got it just the way he wanted it – to the beat. And to get rid of the surfin’/car motif, he collaborated with Tony Asher, who wrote the lyrics to most of the songs. The lyrics were deeply personal, showing a vulnerability that Brian felt personally.
This was a different sounding Beach Boys, and once the band got back from touring Japan without Brian, they were shocked at the sound. Mike Love, not surprisingly, hated it and wanted to go back to singing about fast cars. But Brian pushed for the new sound, and the record was released on May 18, 1966.
This was Brian’s tour de force. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the most Beach Boys-sounding song, was ranked number 7 among Pitchfork Magazine’s 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s. Its flip side, the amazing “God Only Knows,” was the greatest song ever written, according to Beatle Paul McCartney. High praise indeed.
The rest of the album takes some getting used to. It’s eclectic, with classical instruments laden throughout, but its sweeping melodies and Beach Boy harmonies are still present. In “Pet Sounds,” Wilson started a rivalry with the Beatles, who wanted to outdo what Brian had done. In essence, he forced them to make “Sergeant Pepper.” (Brian was so blown away by “Sergeant Pepper” that his follow-up effort, “Smile,” drove him to a nervous breakdown and wasn’t finished for almost 40 years.)
Time to Grow
In Pet Sounds, Brian created a masterpiece that, unfortunately, wasn’t fully appreciated by the buying public. It reached only Number 10 on the Billboard charts and sold only 500,000 copies initially, but in the UK it was a hit, reaching Number 2. “God Only Knows” flipped with “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” and went all the way to Number 2. Proof that the Brits sometimes had much better taste than we Yanks did.
Now we know. Rolling Stone ranked it as the second greatest album of all time. It’s revered as one of the greatest pieces of music ever released. Its influence can be felt today, through production techniques, the rise of psychedelic and progressive rock, the invention of chamber pop or baroque pop, and the idea of an album as a complete thought rather than a bunch of singles put together. (The Beatles, admittedly, had partially done this with Rubber Soul and Revolver, but they weren’t an entire suite of music as Pet Sounds is.)
According to Wikipedia, “Pet Sounds is regarded by musicologists as an early concept album that advanced the field of music production through its introduction of non-standard harmonies and timbres, incorporating elements of pop, jazz, exotica, classical, and the avant-garde. A heralding work of psychedelic rock, the album signaled an aesthetic trend within rock by transforming it from dance music into music that was made for listening to, elevating itself to the level of art rock.”
This year Brian is touring with a band playing Pet Sounds in its entirety. I hope to see it being played so I can say I witnessed one of the great ones playing one of the great ones.